Leader interview

Kevin Furniss, APM Terminals

The most senior OSH practitioner at shipping giant Maersk has strong views on the need to talk the language of business and to work themselves out of jobs. 

Image credits: Piet Gispen

“People talk about safety culture,” says Kevin Furniss. “I don’t believe in safety culture at all. There’s only corporate culture and safety is a subset of that. You can have more impact by focusing on organisational and corporate culture than you can trying to pick on a subset.”

Furniss is vice-president, health, safety, security, environment and sustainability at APM Terminals (APMT), part of the Danish-owned AP Moller–Maersk, the world’s largest container ship and supply vessel operator.

He has forthright and sometimes iconoclastic views on the state of safety management. On many employers’ warm words about safety, for example: “All that rhetoric you hear from organisations – ‘safety is our number one priority’ – honestly, it’s just bullshit. Because it’s only a priority until shareholder value is [more of] a priority, until customers start screaming at you.”

There is no sense of grandstanding in the way he delivers such statements, more one of strongly held convictions about the ways safety and health practitioners achieve their aim of keeping others from harm. (This task has sometimes been a tall order in his job for the past four years at APMT, which operates in an industry where lifting heavy objects and the mix of people and vehicles are still often poorly managed with fatal results – see “State of the industry” box below).

Kevin Furniss career file

2014-present, VP health, safety, security, environment and sustainability, APM Terminals
2011-2013, Group director, health, safety and wellbeing, Vodafone
2007-2011, Head of health, safety, environment and sustainability (London 2012), Laing O’Rourke
2007-2008, Director of health, safety, environment and quality, Alfred McAlpine Infrastructure Services
2005-2007, Global EHS manager, Cadbury Schweppes
2000-2004, Manager group safety, Ford Motor Company
1996-2000, Safety manager, BMW Sparter Motoren

“As safety professionals we don’t achieve anything alone,” he says. “We ask everyone else to deliver our vision, our ambition, our ideology that no one gets hurt at work. That’s what we all sign up for, that it’s not OK that people suffer long-term health effects or injury at work.

“It’s not the sexiest profession and you don’t get the biggest reward for it but you do it because there is something inside you. And if you can get that message out to other people you can touch them and inspire them by making emotional connections.”

But that transmission relies on building relationships with colleagues, he says, and understanding what makes a business tick and that’s not always the safety professional’s strong suit.

“You have to leave the technical issues aside and figure out where the organisation is culturally,” he says. “I don’t mean ticking off whether it has a safety policy and audits and so on. Where is the organisation’s heart? What are its values? What is it trying to do? Work out from there what is missing and what is needed.

Kevin-Furniss-APM-Terminals-career-file“Organisations are just collections of people. It’s the networks between the individuals in any organisation that gets stuff done. [The] London 2012 [Olympics] taught me that this was first and foremost a sales job and a relationships job [see p 36]. At some point you need the technical knowledge and the credibility to be able to solve problems, but there are better people placed to solve the technical issues in any organisation than the health and safety people.

In 2014 we said, ‘We are going to start some things but we aren’t going to give you anything else to do for five years’

“Our job is to be the conscience, the challenge that makes people think differently. And you do that by building relationships where people trust you when you say, ‘Hang on a minute, is there something we can do differently here?’

“Whether you are in a boardroom or in a union conversation or talking to a group of guys digging a trench, it’s about whether they trust you. Often that gets missed and we batter the people in the organisation with legal arguments, with issues that are specialist to us. And they don’t get it.”

Mountain view

He says the curriculum for IOSH’s new qualification with its emphasis on business and persuasive skills is welcome. The sales element involves showing people where the benefit to the organisation is in keeping all its workers and contractors safe and healthy.

In the scheme of things

Though the title vice-president of health, safety, security, environment and sustainability at APM Terminals (APMT) might seem broad enough, as the most senior safety practitioner in AP Moller-Maersk Kevin Furniss’s remit extends to providing strategic safety management guidance to all the group’s companies.
“What you have is a big shipping line, the biggest in the world,” he says. “Then there is a ports and terminals business – APMT, a support services operation, Svitzer, which provides mooring and tugging, a freight forwarding division, Damco, and a small division in China and South America building 40 ft and 20 ft shipping containers.”
Each division has its own safety operational team and the heads of safety and environment meet Furniss regularly in a committee. Furniss, in turn, reports to the chief executive of APMT, who is a Maersk group executive board member.
Furniss is based in, and manages operational safety in, APMT because it is Maersk’s most hazardous division. Reporting to him are a head of health, safety, security and environment operations, a head of performance management and data, a global security head and a head of projects. Beneath them is a team of 200 OSH practitioners based in the division’s 73 terminals and 140 inland centres worldwide. He has a dedicated manager setting the safety standards and then measuring progress in meeting them across the organisation.

“If I talk to my chief financial officer [CFO] or finance directors in operations I need to be able to show them the dollar value. If you want to talk to engineers, you have to be able to talk about how to improve a process or to make it leaner or more productive.”

He believes practitioners can bring safety arguments into such discussions easily: “My CFO is always talking to me about shareholder value. Well, I can show how much shareholder value we destroy through accidents, security incidents, cargo loss, then suggest ways we can manage that and reduce those losses.

“When I talk to the engineers I can show how we can increase the time between maintenance changes and if I talk to HR I can talk about talent and how we plan to grow people.”

He feels there is a danger that OSH professionals build a “mountain” of technical expertise, climb to the top of it and then look down on everyone.

“What we are doing here in Maersk is dismantling that mountain and integrating safety into the organisation. So perhaps in three to five years they might not need me and my team because we are reengineering the business to say that you are not able to operate unless you operate safely.”

But if safety is devolved to operations, who monitors and audits them to ensure standards are maintained?

“You can easily integrate it into existing governance and assurance systems, whether it is for finance systems or whatever. It’s a little flippant to say the world will not need safety professionals because it will, but the team I have here [for APMT] is an army of 200 people.”

He points to an example of OSH devolution in the Maersk group’s shipping operation: “They don’t have safety officers on board vessels. The captain is responsible for the safety and health of the crew. They can call somebody for advice but they make the decisions every day on entering confined spaces or work at height on lock out/tag out.”

Kevin-Furniss-expressiveAPMT’s operations staff are all excited by a new “lean” operating programme, he says, analysing processes and removing unnecessary steps. He can harness that programme by making sure that the stages that are cut or simplified include those that introduce unnecessary risk.

“The simpler and the more standardised we can make operations the less risk there is. The more opportunity there is to move things faster and more safely.”

That lack of standardisation is one cause of the container shipping sector’s high accident rates. “When I first came here,” he says, “people told me, ‘We are different’. [I asked] ‘Do you lift boxes? Do you have vessels that call at the quay? Do you put containers on trucks?’ [They said] ‘Yes, we do that’. ‘So tell me how you are different?’

All that rhetoric you hear from organisations – ‘safety is our number one priority’ – honestly it’s just bullshit

“The more we can standardise and simplify the safer we will be, because you reduce the variables and the interactions between people and vehicles or people and heavy loads.

“We are running a big outdoor factory, it has a process and a flow. We have vehicles in, we have containers out. Whether you are building cars or you are putting beans in cans or building a road, everything has a process and a flow. And if you can understand and minimise the steps in that flow and reduce the complexity, you are going to have a massive impact on your safety performance.”

One of the most important lessons he has learned is to make the safe option the path of least resistance: “Human nature will follow the easiest path always. I’ve drilled that into all the teams I’ve led: ‘make it easy for people to do it right and as hard as possible for them to screw up’. If you do that, guess what? Your process adherence goes up, behaviour changes and they won’t try to find shortcuts. People look for those shortcuts because they are trying to do the right thing but it hasn’t been made simple for them.”


State of the industry

In 2016 IOSH and the International Transport Workers’ Federation commissioned Dr David Walters, professor of work environment at Cardiff University, to research workers’ experience of safety and health in international container terminals.
Walters and Dr Emma Wadsworth surveyed 1,849 workers and interviewed 178 managers and operators in 11 container terminals operated by six companies in four countries. They also examined the safety policies and procedures of six major operators.
A principal conclusion of the research report (bit.ly/2FNiP3I), released last September, was that accidents were widely under-reported in the industry and that international operators applied standards inconsistently country by country. More than two-thirds of the workers surveyed said they did not feel safe at work, despite the widespread promotion of behavioural safety and zero harm programmes by the operators.
The researchers said the behavioural models were not as effective as systems that emphasised worker involvement as partners in safety management.
The findings did not surprise Kevin Furniss. “The problem we have is that this is an industry that has been seriously neglected both in its investment in technology and infrastructure and in regulation and oversight.”
He says some operators have yet to engage with modern safety practices and notes that he was the only representative of a terminals business to attend a round table discussion convened with trade unions to discuss Walters’ report.
Another factor limiting safety improvements in the sector is the system in which the only labour the shipping companies can use in many ports, especially those in the US, is that supplied by port authorities and their contracted providers: “They send different guys every day from a labour pool; you don’t have a stable workforce.”
He says that, though he helped the International Labour Organization – whose head of OSH and labour inspection featured in IOSH Magazine's January 2018 leader interview (bit.ly/2reWWHm) – write new standards for port safety in 2016, “those mean nothing unless you have consistent application of that standard. The problem is we don’t and there is no enforcement.”
He adds that the Walters report’s finding that there is little effort to manage occupational health in the sector is “absolutely” a fair criticism. “When you have an industry that is severely immature in managing safety, it’s obvious that you won’t have businesses to look at ergonomics or vibration while they are still dropping heavy loads on people and running them over and still need to address that.”

When he arrived, APMT was “unconsciously incompetent” in its safety management, he says. “I likened it to eight-year-olds playing football. When somebody kicks the ball everyone follows it. It prided itself on being able to roll up its sleeves and fix problems. But it did nothing to stop the problems forming.”

Ending what he calls “short-termitis”, a tendency to focus only on six- or nine-month timescales – prompted by the cyclical nature of the shipping industry – was part of the programme he began soon after his arrival.

“We stopped that,” he says. “We said the only thing that matters is where we are in 2019. We made it less tactical and a lot more strategic.

“I had to get the organisation to trust us, because every year they went through a box-ticking exercise. We had 72 terminals and 170-odd inland businesses around the world just in APMT. The managing directors, battered by new programmes, would tick boxes, saying ‘we are 100% compliant on this or that’. They would veneer things, because they knew there was another programme coming next year.

“In 2014 we said, ‘We are going to start some things but we aren’t going to give you anything else to do for five years. We will give you a lot to do but we will give you five years. You can’t leave it all to the end, we expect you to make consistent progress but we commit to you saying there will be nothing new’.”

He says many of the operating centres were sceptical at first but, when the next year started with no change in the programmes, they began to understand: “In 2015 the penny dropped.”

In 2014 there were ten fatalities at APMT sites (including four direct employees) and the lost-time injury rate (LTIR) was 1.41 per million hours worked; in 2015 this was down to four fatalities (one an employee) and the LTIR was up to 1.94. In 2016 there were no employee fatalities and only two contractor deaths. The LTIR was down to 1.53 and Furniss says totals for recordable injuries and potential high severity incidents were down to their lowest levels ever, while there was a 300% increase in reports of incidents and near-misses. “So we have people telling us more but the number and severity of incidents are reducing.”

“In 2017 we plateaued a little bit but the energy is still there.” This plateau he attributes to the effects of major changes in the group as it divests some of its diversified interests, such as energy and retail, to concentrate on transport and shipping. The year was marked by the arrival of a new group CEO and CFO.

“We still have time to get back on track for 2019,” he says. The programmes may need adjustment to adapt them to structural changes. “We have a lot of people in this business now who have come out of our brother company Maersk Line. They think and operate differently from the terminals people. That brings in a lot of different variables.”

Five to watch

One of the foundations of Furniss’s five-year plan was tighter management of APMT’s “fatal five” hazards: struck by objects (such as containers), struck by vehicles, falls from height (“we have people lashing bars on containers on board vessels at heights of 60 m to 70 m”), contractors’ unsafe actions, and stored energy, in electric, pneumatic or hydraulic form.

“I said to my colleagues in the executive team, ‘If we can do those things exceptionally well, 80% of our problems go away’,” says Furniss.

“We tried to simplify the language because if you talk about risk management people start to get worried and think it’s some kind of specialism. So we just talked about how people get hurt in our business. The most junior person on the quayside can tell you that it’s things dropping on their heads or being hit by a truck.”

Kevin-Furniss-APM-Terminals-in-conversationThe importance of concentrating on the fatal five hazards was reinforced over and over. “We went away from behavioural safety and copied the oil and gas sector in saying ‘know your risks and what can go wrong, understand the control measures that have to be in place to stop those things going wrong, and keep testing and checking they are working’. And that is all we did.”

The programme has contributed to a massive reduction in serious incidents, he says. But that was not achieved by focusing on the accident metrics: “Let the numbers happen, use them as a rear view mirror to see where you have been but focus on how effective you are at keeping those key risks under control.”

One check on the controls is through a “fatal five gap analysis”, an annual self-assessment by the terminals of their safety provisions.

“A portion of that is externally validated through our assurance programme,” says Furniss.

He re-emphasises that these leading indicators are the kind of measures the company uses to judge its progress. “None of our businesses are measured on LTIs. The only measure for LTIs is company-wide.

“That’s the number that goes to the outside world. Our operating businesses are measured on the positive things, the inputs, their level of contribution to managing risk. That’s how we reward our MDs and their senior leadership teams in all our operations. They aren’t measured on accident performance at all.”

The control measures to manage the fatal five are seldom mandated by the corporate centre, says Furniss. “We’ve encouraged our teams to come up with the most simple and effective ways of dealing with those risks. So they are finding their own solutions either by segregation or by using the physical attributes of a container yard, quay or terminal.”

Container wall

One example of using the physical attributes is a project to protect workers washing containers from vehicles crossing the terminals. The dirty containers are now placed in lines that create barriers segregating the cleaners from the traffic.

“A 40 ft container full of furniture or bananas can weigh 20 tonnes; they can be a good means of separation,” says Furniss. “The simplest solution is often the one in front of you.”

He gives another example of pinning containers when they are stacked. “There is a twist-lock, a thing like a tooth you put into a hole in the corner of the container beneath, so when the containers are locked together they don’t fall over when they are on board a vessel.

“When you take the containers off a vessel these twist-locks need taking out and you have to remove them manually.” The terminal operators used to remove the locks while the container was suspended from a cargo crane on the quayside.

“So you have a suspended load weighing anything from 20 to 40 tonnes coming from 75 m up. The bottom can fall out of the container and you have guys working underneath. And while you have the load moving up and down you also have trucks coming on the vertical axis to pick up the containers.”

Kevin-Furniss-APM-Terminals-in-thoughtThe solution was to lift the container straight on to a truck which drives to a dedicated area, a “pinning station”, away from the terminal traffic, where workers are sheltered from the sun or rain. “The guy drives the container to them, they take off the twist-locks, the guy drives off, they sit back down at their station and wait for the next one.”

Slimming standards

The member of Furniss’s central team responsible for refining safety standards is also tasked with ensuring locally developed good practice is promulgated to other terminals and group businesses.

Simplifying standards is another element of the five-year plan. “We started with something like 45 standards,” says Furniss. “We have now got that down to eight.

“We run the business from a safety perspective on those eight standards. They aren’t highly complex. They cannot be more than three sides of A4 long. You are not allowed to use words of more than two syllables and it has to be diagrammatic where possible.

“We don’t operate in the UK,” he notes as an aside. “The only English-speaking market we operate in is the US. So everywhere else English is a second language – even though Maersk’s business language is English. You have French in Benin and the other francophone countries, Portuguese in Brazil, and Spanish and Urdu and Chinese.

“You have to simplify and use pictures. We don’t even rely on local translation but try to use common language that everyone understands.”

He returns to his earlier point about resisting the natural tendency to over-complicate matters.

“As safety professionals we invest a lot of time in our education and it’s human nature to want to show how much we have learned. But the trick here is to strip all that back and make it as easy as possible for non-specialists. We have to get away from showing how intelligent we are.”

We started with something like 45 standards. We have now got that to eight

They cover the fatal five plus one on risk assessment, another on measuring and ensuring performance, and one on monitoring daily operations.

“The rest will belong to the business.” This brings him back to shrinking the need for a big safety function. “Then you don’t need this massive team; you only need perhaps a third of them to effect that.”

What about his safety staff? To have worked themselves out of a job will make them more attractive to other employers, he says. “The best testament to how successful you have been in your job is that the organisation no longer needs you. I would hire anybody in that position.”

Maturity scale

Furniss spends at least 50% of his time travelling from APMT’s HQ in the Dutch capital The Hague to the company’s terminals and centres around the world. He says he would happily make it 100%, because the operational centres are where he can make the direct connections with managers and staff that he believes promote safety improvements.

“I can’t do that sat here. It’s the managing directors of terminals and operations who make the decisions that affect people, and the foremen and the shift managers. The closer I can get to the coalface the better.”

Brief conversations with a cross-section of employees driving vehicles at any APMT site tell him a lot about the safety maturity there.

“I ask the simple question: ‘Why are you wearing a seatbelt?’ The response can be a variation on either, ‘Because I’m told to and I’ll get in trouble if I don’t’ or ‘I know it might save my life one day’. That tells you whether you have a rules-based culture which is about veneer, which to me isn’t really a culture at all, to one where people tell you they do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Olympic effort

Furniss joined Maersk in 2014 from telecoms operator Vodafone – one of his previous reports Dwayne Duncum was interviewed in IOSH Magazine in March 2017 (bit.ly/2l2Sgg6). Before that, in a career that has taken in engineering and food manufacture, the biggest highlight was his four years as OSH head at CLM, the joint venture “delivery partner” that sat between the Olympic Delivery Authority and the contractors building the Olympic Park, stadium and venues, and athletes’ accommodation for the London 2012 games.

The Olympic “big build”, which peaked at 10,000 workers on site, set a new standard of no fatalities and an accident rate of 0.17 per 100,000 hours worked, half that of the UK construction industry at the time.

He attributes the 2012 partners’ success partly to their sheer commitment: “From the leaders of the ODA through the leaders of the programme manager [CLM] to the professionals, [ODA safety head] Lawrence Waterman, myself and the teams we had working for us and the teams in the contractors, everybody was focused on one objective which was to keep everybody safe.

“There was an immense pride about being involved, even among the foreign workers who came over. That was what we talked about all day, every day, and it touched all of the 100,000-odd workers on the programme. That singlemindedness made it different.”

As at APMT he says the main role of CLM was not policing safety, but rather “sharing, learning, governance and assurance”.

“We had a big standard at the front that set our expectations of contractors, but how they delivered that was up to them. We never went round nitpicking, saying, ‘How many things can we find wrong this week?’”

The 2012 safety record has proven hard to replicate in major infrastructure projects since. Can it be replicated? “I don’t know,” he says. “Those people were so single-minded and they have moved on to different industry sectors.”

Junior appointment

Furniss’s route into practice followed neither the most common path – years spent in another discipline, before a sideways move – nor the rarer one of starting with an academic OSH qualification.

“[At school] I wanted to be a pathologist,” he says. I did A-levels and I got a place at the University of Wolverhampton to study pathology. But it was a seven-year course.”

Rethinking his future he took a job in the quarrying industry in the late 1980s just before the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations came into force. “I had done A-level chemistry and was studying for an HNC [Higher National Certificate] and my quarry manager had a mines and quarries inspector come to him and chuck this new regulation at him, so he said, ‘Give that to the chemist guy’. All of a sudden the quarry manager is asking me what to do. I thought ‘this could be interesting’.”

In making the switch to OSH management he also drew on the influence of helping his father, a colliery superintendent, study for professional exams – “it was all gas safety, people safety”.

“I got my first job as safety manager at 19 and-a-half and I’ve been in it ever since.”

How have those years changed him? “Then I had a lot more ego, I needed to feel recognition. Over time you realise it isn’t all about you and you don’t need to show you are the smartest person in the room. I can play a supporting role in the wings and be a prompt sometimes. A show still gets put on … I know that my desire for people to go home safely is being fulfilled by somebody else and they can have all the credit and limelight they like.”



Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.


  • Interesting article for us,

    Permalink Submitted by Morgan Foley on 5 February 2018 - 09:42 am

    Interesting article for us, as a manufacturer of port equipment.

  • Very interesting and

    Permalink Submitted by Vishal Barve on 13 February 2018 - 09:45 am

    Very interesting and motivating. My takeaway from this interview is standarisation and making the things simpler will make us more safer.

  • All about the truth.

    Permalink Submitted by Willem Nel on 13 February 2018 - 11:39 am

    All about the truth.

  • At last, at last someone

    Permalink Submitted by Steve Cook on 21 February 2018 - 02:53 pm

    At last, at last someone saying how it is.......please come into the construction industry Mr. Furniss before it implodes.. Company HSE mission statements longer than the building specification! Risk adversity as opposed to risk management etc. etc. I am really motivated by this piece but I would be a lone voice, I fear.

  • Very interesting interview, I

    Permalink Submitted by Mary Darlington on 6 April 2018 - 04:19 pm

    Very interesting interview, I can relate to a great deal of it. I love the approach to focus on the 4 fatal accident causes and not nit pick.

  • He gets it! Great approa

    Permalink Submitted by John on 8 April 2019 - 11:51 pm

    He gets it! Great approach and enjoyable read.


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